Is “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” the key to better-behaved toddlers?
The PBS Kids show is nearly unwatchable for anyone over age 6. It’s sappy and not at all funny.
But my kid eats it up like chocolate on ice cream – and its lessons work. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled out Daniel Tiger’s songs to quiet a meltdown (“give a squeeze, nice and slow, take a deep breath, and let it go”), get my kid to share (“you can take a turn, and then I’ll get it back”) or get him to leave without protest (“it’s almost time to stop, so choose one more thing to do”).
I realized just how big of an impact this show is having on kids – of all places – in the bathroom of our favorite restaurant.
As I got our 2-year-old situated on the toilet, I began running through the song Daniel Tiger sings – “If you have to go potty, stop and go right away. Flush and wash and be on your way” – because it helps him remember everything he needs to do in there.
And what do I hear in the next stall? Another toddler, singing the song right along with me. Her mom calls across the wall.
“Yep,” I said. “It just works.”
But that got me thinking. Why does Daniel Tiger work so well?
“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” is basically a reboot of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.” It is set in Fred Rogers’ land of Make Believe and uses an updated version of the curriculum he created to teach toddlers social and emotional skills.
Each show is carefully scripted to hold a toddler’s attention and impart a lesson. In fact, the show’s creator, Angela Santomero, told Forbes in 2012 that episodes are screened multiple times at preschools and daycares before they air to ensure lessons are clear, concise and repeatable.
“My hope is to have a useful strategy for every situation a parent could find themselves in,” she said.
Wait a second. So, toddlers actually could come with user manuals?
Daniel Tiger imparts the central lesson of each episode with an earworm of a song, which is repeated multiple times by multiple characters throughout the episode. That’s smart, because songs often make material more relatable (and memorable) for kids.
There’s a reason we sing our ABCs. Plenty of research has shown us that music improves memory and helps kids learn.
It also helps parents recall the lessons in stressful situations – like, oh, say, when your 2-year-old just knocked over a row of perfectly lined up shampoo bottles at CVS. I actually sang “give a squeeze, nice and slow” calmly when I was about to lose it – and it worked. The kiddo calmed down. We picked up the bottles. He even apologized for making a mess.
Magic, right? No. It’s science. As Adam Hahs, an expert in applied behavior analysis at Arizona State University, points out, Daniel Tiger generally incorporates the components of behavioral skills training — instruction, modeling, rehearsal and feedback — which are widely and effectively used to teach new skills and behaviors.
Characters introduce the concept (“It’s OK to make mistakes. Try and fix them and learn from them too”) and model how it might look (Daniel Tiger knocks over a basket because it was too close to the edge of the table, then picks everything up and moves the basket back from the edge).
Other characters rehearse the lesson in various situations (in the same episode, Baker Aker accidentally breaks the wheels off the trolley cookies, which are replaced with chocolate candies) and routinely get positive feedback from adults and friends when their behavior changes for the better.
Learning may be amplified when parents sing a song, point out good behavior on the show or explain how something Daniel Tiger did applies to their child’s current situation, Hahs explains.
“Most parents don’t know how effective that is,” he says.
So, Daniel Tiger really is changing my toddler’s behavior?
Perhaps. But there’s a big caveat.
A recent study from media researcher Eric Rasmussen split 127 preschoolers and their parents into two groups. Half watched Daniel Tiger for 30 minutes for two weeks, while the other half watched a nature documentary.
Rasmussen tested the kids’ social and emotional skills and saw improvement in those who watched Daniel Tiger – but only if their parents regularly talked with them about what they were watching. Those who simply watched the show with no parental interaction were no better off than those who watched the documentary.
That suggests watching Daniel Tiger can help quiet a toddler meltdown or help them try something new – but only if parents are actively involved in the watching and modeling its lessons in real life.
Joanna Allhands is azcentral’s digital opinions editor and the mother of a 2-year-old. Reach her at [email protected].
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